Progress of Kristina Nelson demands more minutes for Irish women

Ken Klimek
Tribune Correspondent

SOUTH BEND – When the Notre Dame women’s basketball team opens its 2016-17 season with an exhibition game Thursday night against Roberts Wesleyan, fans may be a little surprised by who winds up playing a more prominent role.

All signs at the moment point to senior post player Kristina (Coco) Nelson, a 6-4 senior from Buford, Ga., who has had an impressive fall camp.

She played in 31 of the 33 Irish games a year ago, but averaged only 8.4 minutes, 2.8 points and 2.4 rebounds. Coach Muffet McGraw expects all those numbers to climb this season.

“She came back really confident and has been playing well on the block,” said McGraw after a Tuesday practice.

Nelson was running the floor well and seemed comfortable and at ease in the offenses McGraw was running.

“She is demanding the ball and playing aggressively on both ends of the floor,” she added.

“A lot of it really was just confidence,” said Nelson. “I stayed here this summer and worked really hard. The coaches put their trust in me and I finally can trust myself.”

Scoring doesn't figure to be a problem for the Irish, so Nelson can make a difference in other areas.

“She has been rebounding well, and talking a lot on the defensive end,” said McGraw. “She is probably one of our best communicators. We have to have that along the back line.”

If Nelson’s progress continues it will reap benefits for the Irish, who feature 6-3 All-American Brianna Turner, already an anchor in the post, along with a host of 3-point shooting talent.

“She is considered one of six starters,” McGraw said. “She started in our last scrimmage. She definitely will see more minutes this season.”

Those words ring well for Nelson.

“Last year I think I was really over-thinking,'' she said. "This year I am playing loose. I want more minutes and want to do the little things that will help this team.”

“She just came back with a different mind set,” said McGraw. “She is really pushing the other starters for time.”

With a team loaded with veteran players, a pleasant surprise like Nelson is a bonus for the Irish, ranked No. 2 in the nation to start the season. Her height and bulk can make the Irish inside game even more of a threat.

“I just have to continue to come out every day and keep that trust in myself,” said Nelson. “I want to try to keep getting better. I feel I am in good shape and I know we are ready for our first test. We want a challenge and want to play someone other than our own teammates.”

Nelson is a graphic design major who hopes to work in the sports field somewhere when she graduates in May.

“There is nothing specific at this point, but I know that is what I want to try doing,” she said.

Nelson, Turner and additional help from 6-foot-5 senior Diamond Thompson give the Irish the size and depth they will need in the post for the rigors of Atlantic Coast Conference play.

There is a possibility the Irish could meet Washington, a Final Four team a year ago, in the WNIT preseason tourney. Notre Dame also has a long list of rugged foes on its non-conference schedule, including Connecticut, Tennessee, Iowa and Michigan State.

The work Nelson is capable of certainly could help in the long grind of the regular season.

Watch for her, starting Thursday night at Purcell Pavilion.